In 2019, Time Out magazine included the colonial, colorful, charming neighborhood of Jalatlaco, Oaxaca in their list of “coolest neighborhoods in the world.” Google’s top search results for the neighborhood include a confusing mix of older posts calling it a hidden gem, with newer posts drawing attention to the looming danger of gentrification.
After visiting Jalatlaco in late 2022, along with a similar neighborhood Xochimilco, I can confirm that they both have a haven-like feel, only a short walk away, but separated from, the hustle and bustle of Oaxaca’s Centro district. On days I was feeling overwhelmed or lacking in energy, these neighborhoods felt like a respite – a breath of fresh air. Walking along the relatively quiet cobblestone streets, surrounded by vibrant street art and old cars, you can’t help but feel transported to a different time. You’re filled with a sense of wonder and romantic notions, and it’s easy to see why people would be drawn here.
The Danger of Gentrification
It’s also easy to see how quickly they could lose their original charm and historical and cultural value with the encroachment of businesses geared toward and properties specifically purchased for tourists. According to a study published by the Center of Social Studies and Public Opinion (CESOP), increased interest in Oaxaca as a tourist destination in recent years has drawn many long-term visitors to these neighborhoods which causes a negative domino effect – buildings that used to house locals and their workshops for reasonable rates are now being turned into rentals, high-priced restaurants, cafes, and boutique stores, which ultimately drives up prices of everything in the vicinity.
While this study also stated that an influx of foreigners isn’t entirely negative due to increased revenue for local businesses, job creation, and urban renewal, it stressed that regulations which “guarantee the balance between urban development and the protection of natural, historic, architectural, cultural and artistic heritage” is desperately needed to prevent “segregation and territorial exclusion” (Mexico News Daily).
During our time here, we had a mezcal tasting with a lifelong resident, Francisco, who mentioned that Oaxacan people are very proud of their culture and tradition but are wary of change, leaving them susceptible to being taken advantage of by foreigners trying to capitalize on their reluctance.
It’s definitely a complicated balance to find, and the more you think about how to accomplish an enact a system in which everyone can benefit, the more elusive the solution seems. As a tourist coming to Oaxaca, the best advice I can offer with my limited knowledge, is to avoid Airbnb properties in trendy neighborhoods, or at least make sure the host is a local and not a company or wealthy foreigner. I would also shop with locals, in favor of boutique stores, and purchase from long established restaurants and street vendors over newer restaurants geared towards tourists.
Now that we’ve discussed the danger of gentrification in these treasured neighborhoods, let’s get into what makes them so unique, and which one is right for you to visit if you’re limited on time.
Located east of Santo Domingo, and definitely the busier of the two neighborhoods, Jalatlaco would best be enjoyed in the early morning, before the traffic picks up. Cafes are numerous, so I would grab a coffee to go (para llevar), and just wander. The street art is plentiful and it seems almost every street has colorful flags flying above.
The main attraction of the neighborhood is the Templo de San Matías, a modest ex-convent with a warm facade, and a courtyard enclosed by a low stone wall where you can sit and people watch (or in our case dog watch).
Other than a few small boutique clothing shops and more English-signage than we were accustomed to seeing in Oaxaca, it didn’t seem too heavily influenced by foreigners yet. That being said, I don’t know how many of the buildings in this neighborhood have changed from housing into shops or cafes in recent years, or how that has impacted rental costs.
For me, the joy of Jalatlaco is in discovery, of a mural that speaks to you, or a combination of colors that makes you happy. This isn’t a place to go to “do things”, it’s a place to absorb what’s around you. Just breathe, and take it all in.
Located north of Santo Domingo, you can visit Xochimilco any time of day as it seems to be a lot quieter than Jalatlaco. In my opinion, the best time is in the morning, especially if you’re visiting during the summer months, as there’s not much shade to be found, like most of Oaxaca. Also, the neighborhood seems to be getting a reputation for its fantastic breakfast and brunch spots.
Like Jalatlaco, incredible street art is around every corner, but one of the most interesting features of this neighborhood is the San Felipe Aqueduct. Built in the mid 18th century and used to provide water to Oaxaca City until the early 1940’s, the towering remnants of the aqueduct are now surrounded by a small park with benches at the far end of the neighborhood and were quite fun to explore. At the other end of the neighborhood, a smaller portion of the aqueduct has been turned into housing.
Other than seeing a few locals out and about, we felt pretty alone in our exploration of this area, and the traffic was sparse until you headed out beyond the aqueduct. We spent a few hours making sure we saw every side street we could, until my shoulders unfortunately started to burn in the midday sun.
Battle of the Barrios: Which Should You Visit?
If you have enough time, definitely visit both! I wouldn’t try to fit them into the same day, unless you have a lot of stamina, because it’s quite a bit of walking, and you don’t want to rush through without savoring the experience.
I found Jalatlaco to be the most polished and trendy of the two. Dare I say, Instagrammable. Xochimilco, on the other hand, was a bit more adventurous and undiscovered. I personally loved the artwork and the aqueduct in Xochimilco, and the somewhat sleepy feel, and would choose this one to visit over the two if crunched for time.
Both neighborhoods require a delicate balance to ensure their cultural significance remains intact, and I hope in the coming years we don’t see their infrastructure completely changed, and the local residents who are responsible for their charm forgotten and dislocated.
Let me know below which neighborhood speaks to you, and if you have any ideas on how to best preserve them and their inhabitants!
2 thoughts on “Visiting Jalatlaco and Xochimilco, Oaxaca | Hidden Gems or in Danger of Gentrification?”
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